–Bernie Latham

I am curious as to how visual, auditory, or olfactory your imagination is when composing scenes and whether your sensory experience of a scene can inspire a new narrative twist or enhance some nuance of character. 

—Bernie Latham, Portland, Oregon

Bernie, this is one of those questions that makes me think about writing in a more specific way than I have since it means trying to nail down what the actual experience of writing fiction is, to think about what’s going on in my brain aside from constantly scanning for information and for understanding and connections and the right words. The broadest answer to the first part of your question is that I’m a writer who uses a lot of detail and that means trying to grasp its sensory nature in a way that makes it feel immediate for the reader. In particular, sensory awareness is key to writing description.

I think the main way I can explain the sensory experience is to borrow something Barack Obama said when he was campaigning in the 2008 election. He was talking about missing his family and he said that, though he talked to his children regularly, there were times when you “just have to have those little girls in your arms.” Though a lot of us have gotten pretty good at living in virtual ways in the digital era, actual experience and imagined or remembered experience are still very different things. This leads me to another observation. All of our lived experience is so tied up in memory. Nothing is purely in the moment. When we interact with someone, the quality of what we say and do is affected by what has happened in that relationship or in ones like it if we’re dealing with somebody new.

Writing is like that as well, except the actual physical interaction of voice or touch or seeing or smell is absent. It has to be recalled or created by combining different things drawn from experience, imagination and, sometimes, from research. So you don’t actually smell a horse in a scene, for instance. That would make writing a nightmare, particularly for someone like me who’s plagued with an acute sense of smell. If just thinking of something made the experience completely real, all writers, not just some, would be crazy. That doesn’t mean that writing can’t trigger memory and other responses in a very vivid way. But there’s that gauzy scrim, which can never be breached, that separates the writer—and the reader—from the scene that’s evoked in the mind by words. It also doesn’t mean a writer doesn’t reach deep into thought and memory to try to hear the sound of a voice or remember the music that is playing in the background or to see the exact play of light on a surface. This is absolutely part of the writing experience and both a very challenging part and one of the most exciting.

The second part of your question is harder and I’m tempted to say I don’t know and just leave at that. However, I’m used to digging for things, so I’ll give it a try—or at least see if I can think of an example or two. As far as nuance of character being developed through a sensory awareness of someone who’s arrived on the page, I think that happens a lot. Here’s a bit of scene I just flashed on from Suite Harmonic:  

     Finally, then, he was riding shotgun on the road west and listening to the coachman, who stunk worse of tobacco juice and rotting teeth than any soldier John had ever smelled. He went on and on about the fair. He talked about the big Shoe there’d been in New Harmony that had more than a hundred horses. It was a story John would rather have heard from his father.
     “Barely a fraction of Shiloh,” John said, “the number of horses, I mean,” and an image of slaughtered horses suddenly assaulted him.
     What?” The coachman turned with his rank breath, and John shook his head.
     “Nothing,” he answered, though he could almost hear horses screaming once more, an ungodly mixture of angry whinny and the fierce explosion of air when the bullets struck. His mind stayed for the longest time on a horse’s eye that had changed, as though a shadow had passed over it, from glassy to a clouded gray. 

This is the only appearance of that coachman in the story, but because we’re so good at creating stereotypes from first impressions, it’s clear if he were to appear again, we wouldn’t expect him to be pleasant or even trustworthy. The picture of him, to say nothing of his unwelcome garrulousness, puts us off. But there’s actually something more interesting going on in this short bit that’s also relevant to your question. John has one of those vivid experiences, common to all of us, in which the mind’s ongoing business of free association pops a very strong sensory memory. The talk of horses puts John back on the battlefield at Shiloh, and he thinks not about the death of men, but of horses. In a kind of convoluted way, the scene the coachman evokes tells us something about John Given’s sensory experience of battle, and something about John. These things are all mixed up together.

I’m now trying to think of a time when my sensory experience of a scene on the page might have inspired a narrative twist. Obviously this is part of the writing experience (think of how many words depended on Proust’s madeleine), and part of how things get written and, basically, how life gets lived: one things leads to another. I suspect, for me, this sort of thing happens most often with some sort of interface between an actual environmental clue and how I write that into a story that is then propelled in a certain direction. For instance, “At Flood Tide,” one of the stories in In the Land of the Dinosaur, would never have been written if the creek in the valley outside my study windows hadn’t flooded in the most dramatic way. I don’t remember precisely how the story of Franklin Gage, and his wife, Amanda, came to me or how it developed, but I do know the excitement of that flood and my desire to describe what it looked and sounded like—and to capture its amazing emotional power—were its foundation. My sensory experience and translation of the experience to the page generated the whole story. And there you go.

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